While the sticky label of "The Quiet Beatle" is a misnomer born of journalistic shorthand, George Harrison, in some respects, remains the hardest member of the group to get a firm grip on.
He worked hard to reach the shared pinnacle of fame, yet spent much of his last three decades avoiding the spotlight, only occasionally trying to reap the benefits of celebrity on his own terms.
He lived an at times wild life, even by the standards of his era, yet was drawn to the bounds of an Eastern spirituality that spoke to a hedonism-free existence.
He journeyed from beyond the shadow cast by two of the most powerful forces in pop history, only to turn his travels toward destinations he found more meaningful than rock and roll.
With the 10th anniversary of Harrison's death from cancer at age 58 approaching, we’re looking forward to seeing director Martin Scorsese give new voice and perspective to the paradox-filled life of a musician who helped change a world that he believed "went crazy."
Scorsese, whose two-part film, “George Harrison: Living in the Material World,” premieres on HBO Wednesday, appears to be in a great position to shed additional light on a man who once sang of being a “Dark Horse.”
The Academy Award-winning director is steeped in the music of the 1960s and knows how to drive drama as well as documentaries with rock (from “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” in “Mean Streets" to “The Last Waltz” and “No Direction Home"). He's explored spirituality on film (“The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Kundun”). But perhaps most importantly, he knows how to convey internal struggles, whether they largely stay on the inside (“The Age of Innocence”) or explode externally (“Taxi Driver” and just about any other Scorsese-Robert DeNiro pairing).
You get both internal and external dramas with Harrison, perhaps rock and roll’s ying-and-yang king.
He devoted the same passion to studying the sitar as superstar as he did to learning the guitar as a boy, becoming good enough to at age 14 to convince older fellow Liverpudlians John Lennon and Paul McCartney to let him join their band.
Harrison’s solos were as much as part of the Beatles’ biggest hits as Lennon and McCartney’s words and melodies – but it wasn’t until the group’s last recorded album, “Abbey Road,” that he outshined them with his own compositions, “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun.” He was barely 27 when group officially split in 1970, the year he released “All Things Must Pass,” which would represent his solo musical peak.
Harrison used his stature to mount “The Concert for Bangladesh,” presaging pop’s power to aid charitable causes, yet the proceeds were held up for years in a legal tangle. He loved racing cars, but found his solace gardening and meditating. He could get preachy talking his sweet lord and the meaning of existence, yet he loved laughter and financed comedies by the Monty Python troupe, which offered the most irreverent cinematic take ever on the meaning of life. He shunned celebrity at times, but formed the greatest supergroup of them all, the Traveling Wilburys.
Even for the most (reluctantly) public of men, Harrison didn’t always receive the same level of attention as some of his peers. His 1980 book, “I Me Mine," felt almost irrelevant following the murder of John Lennon later that year. He had much to say in “The Beatles Anthology” documentary and book in 1995, though his words competed with the often-differing recollections of McCartney, Ringo Starr and the past statements of Lennon.
What should have been a huge story – the late 1999 near-fatal attack upon Harrison by a knife-wielding lunatic who invaded his castle – didn’t get the play it deserved from a media obsessed with the coming millennium. The former Beatle’s sad death a decade ago came in the chaotic weeks after 9/11, when it seemed as if the world had traveled far beyond mere craziness.
With the perspective time can bring – as well as Scorsese’s seemingly unfettered access to Harrison’s archives, friends and family – the 3 1/2-hour film might represent the best opportunity for the more complicated than quiet Beatle to be heard loud and clear.
George Harrison is poised to emerge from the shadows, which, like all things, must pass.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.